06 January 2010

In which I continue discussing uncomfortable things then distract by posting a clip of koalas having sex

And without further ado here ya go

So the Tiger Woods incident spreads out a bunch of different reactions. I'd like to examine how, more or less, I have arrived at my own impression and why it is different for different circumstances by comparing it to other sports scandals of late.

Mr Woods did not break any laws but rather violated some sort of (important) unwritten social convention. He isn't even accused of violating any laws. Contrast(s). Charles Barkley: bar fight where he threw a patron through a window, DUI arrest last year, various confessions of high stakes gambling losses/personal issues with gambling and alcohol. Kobe Bryant: rape trial in 2004, eventually settled out of court with obvious and public admissions of very similar marital infidelity involved. Michael Vick: animal cruelty and criminal conspiracy case involving dog fighting, admitted and served prison time now playing in Philadelphia (instead of Atlanta), lost millions of dollars in endorsements and contract money. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro: accused of, admitted, or proved to use HGH or steroids illegally for competitive advantage, penalties mostly revolve around chanting fans and low Hall of Fame support by media voters but fans turn out in droves anyway to watch the ball fly out of the park or strikeouts get racked up. Gilbert Arenas/Plaxico Burress gun licensing or storage issues and irresponsible use of firearms, suspensions and legal penalties ongoing.

Now. What I can see from these is that there is a "good" PR way to handle a crisis of image. Charles Barkley has more or less a pass on bad behavior because he's a jovial, honest guy who says some interesting, provocative, if sometimes silly things. The public, at least the part of the public likely to follow Charles Barkley and provide him with advertising money, loves this. Minimal, but appropriate legal penalties did apply to his transgressions as a result. Jason Giambi admitted he had used "the clear" in a court case, this testimony was leaked (which may be a breach of some sort of legal ethics), but he then publicly apologized, took whatever penalties in suspensions and fines were deemed appropriate and played several more seasons in New York (New York!) with legions of adoring fans who were more concerned with his strikeout totals and lack of World Series rings than his past transgressions. By contrast, Rodriguez stonewalled and lied in a nationally televised interview before coming around to the contrition model, Clemens and Bonds have thoroughly protested despite what appears to be mounting evidence against them in support of their use of steroids or HGH, and their public reputations have taken and continue to take considerable hits. Gilbert Arenas hasn't seemed to get that his "joke" involving unloaded firearms in the locker room isn't very funny and is getting hammered with a big suspension with millions of dollars at risk and a Wizards team that would be only too happy to find some way to void the rest of his contract (I'm not sure they will succeed on this last point). Vick lied and stonewalled his owner and the NFL for a while until his legal troubles caught up to him, then served time and issued public apologies, with damage control still ongoing as he plays in a limited role in the NFL.

It seems clear that we have an unwritten rule about misconduct that contrition, in a public and meaningful way, helps clear up a PR and legal problem. I think what this does do is suggest, publicly, that the person who has fucked up knows they did something wrong, and it hints that they will try really, really hard not to do it again (in some cases, with every intention of continuing to be a screwball, in others not so much). I'm very confident Vick figured that out after serving time in prison and losing millions of dollars. Those were substantial costs, made so because they involved major public damages and legal consequences. Arenas will probably figure this out after losing millions of dollars to suspensions and whatever legal penalties end up applying (which probably will be minimal in his case from the sound of it). Again, because his actions involve major league trouble and irresponsible reactions to authority (suggesting that he isn't aware of how much trouble he has caused), he will face stiff penalties. Woods I'm pretty sure has figured out at least to keep a tighter lid on his marital infidelities, if not to reform his behavior more fully in the future. I don't think, given that he is depriving himself of millions of dollars of possible income to play golf tournaments and thus losing sponsorships for an indefinite time, that we should assume that his lack of a "sufficient" and contrite public apology is evidence that he does not take the situation seriously and thus punish him further for it.

There's a catch here I think of and apparently doesn't matter to anybody else. That is: who did he offend and damage? The closest parallel in the above model is probably the steroids charges on the one hand, because the public doesn't really seem to care about steroids as long as players perform (see: NFL) and I am quite confident this will be the case for Tiger as well, if/when he resumes winning golf tournaments. So why did his sponsors flee? This is probably where the Kobe parallel comes into play. So far as we the public are concerned, legally, Kobe did nothing wrong. It's possible that the young woman involved bears some ill effect, but she's no longer a public figure, quietly dismissed by an out-of-court settlement so nobody cares. His wife probably bore some public scarring, but he also provided a gigantic shiny bauble to her to remonstrate some dedicated affections that were bruised. It's entirely possible that the incident allowed them to repair whatever damage their relationship took and move forward. We, the viewing public, don't really know. All we know is that Kobe's play on the court the last few years has improved, depending on your perspective of watching basketball (seems like it from my angle). I'm still not sure why he's considered "clutch" of course. Maybe the Olympic Gold medal game in Beijing, but that's the last real clutch instance I remember him coming through. If Tiger goes forward and resumes golfing this may (will) be what we remember as well, Tiger's fist pumps as he celebrates a key putt in the Masters on his way to another green jacket, and so on. In my opinion this, the fact that he won't be playing, or will be feared to be playing at a diminished capacity for a time, would be why sponsors have fled at least, and they have little concern with his private life.

What we also know is that it doesn't appear that Tiger's transgressions will be repaired domestically in the way that Kobe's appear to have been. To me, this is the only essential damage and relationship that matters. Our relationship as fans of golf or of Tiger personally was never a personal one, with a certain aloofness involved that seemed partly a conscious choice and partly the nature of golfers as a sport of private individualists (other than John Daly back in the day). So should the honest openness of a Barkley or going back further a Ruthian character allow us to forgive more easily their essentially flawed humanness in a way that the closed and walled off life of a private and successful entity like Tiger does not? I have no illusions about his decency of character and I don't think anybody else should have either. He is a golfer and a human being. Not the anointed successor to Mother Teresa. But it appears clear that at this point, people (or at least advertisers and media types) would prefer if he acted like everyone else and pretended that his public apology to us matters and took it seriously with a "better late than never" approach.

I personally think the damage from a messy (and mostly public) divorce proceeding and the damage done to his current and future relationships with his children and wife (as well as any possible future wife(s)) is far worse than the pressure of the public to jeer or insult him because he won't acknowledge our seething and misplaced anger. We have had philandering powerful men as celebrity figures before. In fact not that long ago we had a bunch of overzealous moralists (who deliciously turned out to be just as weak and flawed men themselves) seeking to impeach a President over this very same tactic of stonewalling over his personal infidelities. The closest probable parallel in the sports celebrity/deity circle is probably Jordan. Jordan had a messy series of lawsuits involving some estranged woman (which he won, if I recall), has had a divorce from his wife, has had a long running and sometimes iffy relationship with gambling, and yet he is more or less beloved and his private life never really entered into the public eye and nobody seems to care that much. At worst, his bizarre habit of "running" a sports team as GM from the golf course and his ranting Hall of Fame speech a few weeks ago were the butt of some jokes, with a sort of "well, that's Mike" shrug. I don't get what the difference between him and Tiger is. Why are "we" so pissed about the one and not the other? When did it become important for someone to be a joyless god of sport, churning out victories for our enjoyment and crushing their competition on the field of battle, where we would forgive their transgressions (Jordan's classic final shot against Utah with the push-off dismissing Russell for example) in the name of achievements, but we then will transfer upon them some expectation of perfection in life that we feel offended when they fall from that pedestal? And why weren't we offended when MJ was only human? Our expectations were no different. The media frenzy existed in Mike's playing days (in part because of MJ himself). Why is the outcome so changed now that we care at all about the one and nothing about the other? I am not sure I have an answer to explain these differences. But I think we should be aware of them.

To put all of this back into the box. I do agree that, assuming a nominal marriage with normal respectful behavior regarding intimacy and sexuality, which may be a safe assumption, Tiger should not have run around cheating on his wife with other women. But I don't see how that affects any of us in the slightest that we should demand and receive an apology. If he wants to give one, fine. I guess that would be smart PR, but it doesn't actually repair anything. Because it's not us, or his fans, that he really harmed. He is accused of violating no legal statutes, even something as mundane in my opinion as a DUI without incident or a gun possession charge and certainly nothing so severe as abusing dogs for private financial gain or creating a violent incident involving another human being, and so the harm is private, based upon his private marriage contract and legal custody rights to his children, and not a public concern. And we should keep that in mind too.
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